Song Lyric Sunday – Canadian Singers

It’s Canada week! Jim Adams, our host for Song Lyric Sunday, has prompted us with Canadians Singers. This was an easy one for me and I have chosen two songs this week.

The first is by The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. This is a song I love to sing out loud in the car when I have no passengers 🙂 Technically only 4 out of the 5 members were Canadian (The late Levon Helms was from Arkansas), but I decided that majority rules!

The second song is “Suzanne” by the late, great Leonard Cohen. The lyrics to this song are pure poetry and I only wish I could write as well as he did.

Robbie Robertson wrote this song, which is set during the American Civil War – “Dixie” is a term indicating the old American South, which was defeated by the Union army. The song is not related to his heritage, as Robertson is half-Mohawk Indian, half-Jewish Canadian.

Robertson came up with the music for this song, and then got the idea for the lyrics when he thought about the saying “The South will rise again,” which he heard the first time he visited the American South. This led him to research the Civil War. >>

The main character in the song, Virgil Caine, is fictional, but there really was a “Danville train” and “Stoneman’s cavalry.” 

The train would have been part of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, a vital conduit for the Confederate Army. George Stoneman was a Union cavalry officer who led raids on the railroad.

The vocals featured the 3-part harmonies of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko on the choruses, and Helm sang the verses. He was the only band member who was from the South (Arkansas), so it was fitting that he played the role of Virgil Caine, a Virginia train worker, in this song.

Robbie Robertson is the song songwriter credited on this track. Speaking about Levon Helm’s contribution, he told Goldmine in 1998: “Levon’s connection to it was, things that when I went down there, things that he turned me on to. Just kind of showing me around and stuff, and bringin’ me up to speed on what was goin’ on in his ‘hood.’ And I don’t know, really, where it had come from. Usually when you write songs, you write because it’s the only thing you can think of at the time. But it was something that I absorbed, and then years later it came out in a song.”

This was recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.’s house in Los Angeles. The Band rented it and converted a poolhouse into a studio to record their second album.

Joan Baez covered this in 1971. It was her biggest hit, reaching US #3 and UK #6.

Asked about the Baez version of this song, Robbie Robertson said it was “a little happy-go-lucky for me,” but he was thankful that it introduced many listeners to The Band.

Baez changed some of the lyrics on her version. For example, she sings, “Virgil Cain is my name and I drove on the Danville train. ‘Til so much cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.” The original lyrics are, “Virgil Cain is THE name and I SERVED on the Danville train. ‘Til STONEMAN’S cavalry came and tore up the tracks again” referring to George Stoneman, who was a general in the Union army). >>

This was used as the B-side to “Up On Cripple Creek.”

Info courtesy of Songfacts


Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well

The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singin’ they went
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la

Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E Lee”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best

The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singin’ they went
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la

Like my father before me, I will work the land
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

The night they drove old Dixie down, and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the people were singin’, they went
Na, la, na, la, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na

The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and the people were singin’, they went
Na, la, na, la, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na

Writer/s: Robbie Robertson 
Publisher: Warner Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group
Lyrics licensed and provided by LyricFind

In Cohen’s 1975 Greatest Hits album, the liner notes say: “I wrote this in 1966, Suzanne had a room on a waterfront sheet in the port of Montreal. Everything happened just as it was put down. She was the wife of a man I knew. Her hospitality was immaculate. Some months later, I sang it to Judy Collins over the telephone. The publishing rights pilfered in New York City but it is probably appropriate that I don’t own this song. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea.”

In a 1994 BBC Radio Interview Cohen said: “The song was begun, and the chord pattern was developed, before a woman’s name entered the song. And I knew it was a song about Montreal, it seemed to come out of that landscape that I loved very much in Montreal, which was the harbour, and the waterfront, and the sailors’ church there, called Notre Dame de Bon Secour, which stood out over the river, and I knew that there’re ships going by, I knew that there was a harbour, I knew that there was Our Lady of the Harbour, which was the virgin on the church which stretched out her arms towards the seamen, and you can climb up to the tower and look out over the river, so the song came from that vision, from that view of the river.

At a certain point, I bumped into Suzanne Vaillancourt, who was the wife of a friend of mine, they were a stunning couple around Montreal at the time, physically stunning, both of them, a handsome man and woman, everyone was in love with Suzanne Vaillancourt, and every woman was in love with Armand Vaillancourt. But there was no… well, there was thought, but there was no possibility, one would not allow oneself to think of toiling at the seduction of Armand Vaillancourt’s wife. First of all he was a friend, and second of all as a couple they were inviolate, you just didn’t intrude into that kind of shared glory that they manifested.

I bumped into her one evening, and she invited me down to her place near the river. She had a loft, at a time when lofts were… the word wasn’t used. She had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it. And the boats were going by, and I touched her perfect body with my mind, because there was no other opportunity. There was no other way that you could touch her perfect body under those circumstances. So she provided the name in the song.” >>

Judy Collins was the first to record this, releasing it on her 1966 album In My Life. Cohen released it on Songs Of Leonard Cohen, which was his first album, and many other artists have since recorded it, including Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Anni-Frid ‘Frida’ Lyngstad (in Swedish) and Pauline Julien (in French).

In 2006, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) found Suzanne Verdal, who inspired the song. She was a dancer and traveled around the world, but in the ’90s, she hurt her back and was living in a homemade camper in Venice Beach when they found her. She revealed that Cohen lost touch with her by the time he recorded it, although she did meet him briefly after one of his concerts in the ’70s, where he commented that she gave him a beautiful song.

Responding to Cohen’s quote, “It’s not just the copulation. It is the whole understanding that we are irresistibly attracted to one another, and we have to deal with this. We are irresistibly lonely for each other, and we have to deal with this, and we have to deal with our bodies and with our hearts and souls and minds, and it’s an urgent appetite,” Verdal said, “I was the one that put the boundaries on that because Leonard is actually a very sexual man and very attractive and very charismatic. And I was very attracted to him, but somehow I didn’t want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him, for our relationship, and I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow. That precious relationship produced a great piece of art.”

Suzanne Verdal said in The Guardian, December 13, 2008: “Leonard was a friend of my husband, Armand. We were all hanging at the same places in Montreal – Le Bistro, Le Vieux Moulin, which was the place to dance to jazz. Black turtle-neck sweaters, smoke, beatniks and poets – it was that bohemian atmosphere in the 60s. Leonard spent hours at the Bistro. He was quite a bit older than me but he saw me emerging as a schoolgirl, working three jobs to subsidize my dance classes.

By 1965 I had separated from Armand and was living with our little girl. Leonard would come over and I would serve him jasmine tea with mandarin oranges, and light a candle. It sounds like a seance, but obviously Leonard retained those images, too. I was living in a crooked house, so old with mahogany and stained glass. I loved the smell of the river and the freight trains and boats. Out of my window was total romance. Leonard was a mentor to me. We would walk together and we didn’t even have to talk. The sound of his boots and my heels was weird, like synchronicity in our footsteps. He felt it, I felt it and we got such a rush just grinning at each other.

We were never lovers of the flesh but on a very deep level we were. I had the opportunity more than once but I respected his work and what he stood for so much, I didn’t want to spoil it. Also, Leonard is an incredibly sexual man! He’s very attractive to women and I didn’t want to be just one of the crowd.

I left Montreal for the States in ’68 and when I came back people said, ‘Have you heard the song Leonard’s written about you?’ In my wildest dreams I didn’t know it would be huge. I felt flattered, but I also felt there was an invasion of privacy. After that, things changed course. I stayed true to the 60s. He became this big pop icon and was not accessible any more. It hurt. The song is bittersweet for me. Sometimes I’ll be in a restaurant and hear it and I’ll be overcome.”

Ever wonder why Suzanne feeds him tea and oranges? It’s not as exotic as it sounds. Said Cohen in Song Talk: “She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image.”


Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then he gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Written by Leonard Cohen

Info and song lyrics courtesy of Songfacts

  27 comments for “Song Lyric Sunday – Canadian Singers

  1. September 23, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    Some really good music. Great choices!

    • Christine Bolton
      September 24, 2020 at 9:27 am

      Thank you so much. It was a great prompt wasn’t it? ☺️

  2. September 21, 2020 at 6:38 am

    Loved your choice-check out the documentary “The Last Waltz”

    • Christine Bolton
      September 21, 2020 at 9:36 am

      Thanks ! I will 🙂👍

  3. September 20, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    Great songs! I’ve only heard Joan Baez version of Dixie, though. I believe I’ve heard Suzanne before, and love the sound of his voice on anything he sings. 🙂

    • Christine Bolton
      September 21, 2020 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Barbara ☺️

  4. September 20, 2020 at 4:37 pm

    Two great choices Christine! I enjoyed the story of Suzanne, as unfortunate as it turned out. I love The Band & that song has great meaning for me because the novel I’m working on is set in pre-Civil War, Civil War & post-civil war. Anything about that time period, interests me! Thanks for the shares! 🙂

  5. September 20, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    I always think of The Band as Canadian, and there’s no denying Leonard Cohen is. You chose well!

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 3:21 pm

      Thanks John! I really appreciate it ☺️

  6. September 20, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Wonderful post, Christine. Really interesting to read the story behind the music.

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 11:25 am

      Thanks Maggie. I really appreciate it. I thoroughly enjoyed today’s prompts and learning more about the songs and artists myself 🙂💕

  7. September 20, 2020 at 10:19 am

    What a great post. Lots of info I never knew. Great songs too! Thanks Christine!

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 11:25 am

      Thanks so much! I learn something every week with this challenge. It’s great isn’t it? 🙂

      • September 20, 2020 at 8:04 pm

        Yes, I love this challenge. 🙂

  8. September 20, 2020 at 3:20 am

    Great choices Christine, never heard The Last Waltz before but liked their version of The Night They Dove old Dixie Down though my favourite is by Joan Baez. Not keen on Cohen but as ever it a great song. Have a good Sunday 💜

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 8:17 am

      Thanks so much Willow. I like the Joan Baez version too, but she wasn’t Canadian! 🙂. If you like the song Suzanne, Neil Diamond did a fantastic version of it on his album Stones. You can hear the lyrics better and he used an orchestra. Quite beautiful.

      • September 20, 2020 at 9:04 am

        I know Suzanne by Neil Diamond, love it. I enjoyed both your choices 💜

      • Christine Bolton
        September 20, 2020 at 11:21 am

        Thanks Willow ☺️💕

  9. September 20, 2020 at 2:39 am

    I always thought that Leonard Cohen was an American. I learned something new today. Thank you.

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 8:18 am

      Thanks for reading and listening Bernadette ☺️

  10. September 20, 2020 at 12:10 am

    I seem to follow a lot of Canadian singer/songwriters, I’m not sure why… I suppose they are not unlike Irish singers, .. their tunes are honest and have a earthy/raw quality…. Here’s a song from Canadian, David Francey, __ wow I was fortunate enough to see him performing here, at the Port Fairy Music Festival in 2013…

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 8:22 am

      I love the name Port Fairy! I’m not familiar with David France but I have to agree with you about the earthy quality to Canadian singer/songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot comes to mind. I knew you would appreciate my choice of Cohen ☺️👍

      • September 20, 2020 at 8:27 am

        David Francey is a Canadian folk singer-songwriter. He is the recipient of three Juno Awards and three Canadian Folk Music awards. 💙🌏🐧

  11. September 19, 2020 at 11:09 pm

    Great music Christine and I had no idea of that Joan Baez was connected to both of these songs.

    • Christine Bolton
      September 20, 2020 at 8:26 am

      Thanks Jim. I hadn’t realized that Joan Baez had recorded Suzanne either. My absolute favorite version is by Neil Diamond. If you get a chance listen to it’s on his Stones album. The clarity of his voice and the music help you appreciate the wonderful lyrics. Cohen was however the poetic master☺️

      • September 20, 2020 at 11:24 am

        I read that Graham Nash got mad when he heard that Joni Mitchel was staying with Cohen.

      • Christine Bolton
        September 20, 2020 at 12:03 pm

        I would imagine so. They (Graham and Joni) had a relationship didn’t they?

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